By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, January 28, 1939.
“How’d you like to go,” asked Jimmie Frise, “on one of these ski excursions they’re running?1“
“Heh, heh, heh,” I replied.
“They’re no end of fun,” declared Jim. “Whole trainloads of merry skiers, heading for the snow.”
“If the snow won’t come to the skiers,” I said, “the skiers go to the snow.”
“Why not?” demanded Jim. “They are running ski trains out from Boston, New York, Chicago, all over the country. When there are thousands of city-penned people just dying to romp in the snow; and hills full of snow only 50 miles away, what’s the answer?”
“Read a book,” I replied. “Light the grate fire, pull up a deep chair and snuggle down to a good book.”
“Ten years ago, that wouldn’t have been your answer,” sneered Jim.
“Oh, yes, it would,” I retorted. “Ten years ago, I preferred a deep chair to a snowbank even more than I do now. I have always maintained that winter was the season of hibernation. Nature does not intend us to go out romping in the snow. Why does she put the bear to sleep in his den, all winter; and the groundhog and all the rest of them? Why does she pack off all the birds to the south? Because the winter is fit for neither man nor beast. Because winter is no time for anybody or anything to be out. And we should take a tip from nature and stay in our dens as much as possible during the winter.”
“It’s just your age,” said Jim. “If a bear had heavy woollen underwear and a leather coat and fur-lined boots, he wouldn’t den up for the winter.”
“Physical comfort is the first law of happiness,” I decreed. “A man can have all other troubles, but if he is physically comfortable, dry, warm and at ease, he can withstand poverty, grief, fear, everything. What makes poverty unbearable is that it is so uncomfortable.”
“If you were younger,” prodded Jim, “you wouldn’t be so stuck on comfort. Young people get an actual thrill out of discomfort.”
“They can have it,” I assured him.
“One of the lovely things about youth,” went on Jim, “is that it has the stamina and resistance to deliberately submit itself to discomfort, in order to enjoy comfort all the more. They go out and ski in the cold and bitter weather, under a bleak sun, knowing that presently, after so many hours, they will be going back to a nice warm fireside. And oh, how much lovelier a fireside is, when it is contrasted with exposure and chilblains2.”
“I admit that,” I admitted.
“You take an aging and lazy person like yourself,” said Jim, “who never sticks his nose out of doors in winter unless he has to: think of how little real enjoyment he must get out of a fine log fire.”
“What do you mean,” I asked, “by aging and lazy? Whom are you referring to?”
“You,” said Jim.
Glands Must Be Applauded
“Jim,” I informed him, “I resent that. I am not aging. I am younger than you. I am in the very prime of my life.”
“You are in,” said Jim, “what are called the middle 40’s. That means you’re past 45,”
“At that age,” I declared, “a man is just ripe. Just seasoned. Just perfect.”
“Unless, of course,” submitted Jim, “he folds up and quits. Unless he abandons all forms of action in favor of comfort and rest.”
“No man is more active than I am in the spring, summer and fall,” I advised. “Fishing and shooting. But winter just doesn’t appeal to me.”
“It’s the thin end of the wedge,” said Jim. “It’s the beginning of the end. You surrender to comfort and inaction in winter a couple of years more, and then you’ll reach the stage where you put off the trout fishing until the end of May, rather than the wet and cold beginning of May. Then you’ll find it a little easier to sit on the cottage veranda during the hot weather than get out and row a boat…”
Jim could tell by my expression that he was hitting pretty close to the mark. As a matter of fact, I have been postponing the trout season a couple of weeks, and I did sit on the cottage veranda quite a bit last summer. In fact, I lay on a couch on the veranda. In short, I slept a good many afternoons…
“It’s insidious,” explained Jim. “There is no year of a man’s life at which you can say he is starting to grow old. There is no dividing line. You see lots of men who are old at 30. They’ve given in. They have surrendered to a routine of life that gives them the maximum of comfort. Poor, solemn, habited men, who go through life according to a dreadful routine. The streets are full of them, solemn young men, old at 30. But thank heavens you see other men who are not old at 70, who take life on the wing, who never submit to routine, who find zest and pleasure in every hour of every day, who never go to bed at the same hour, never do the same things twice, are full of zip and ginger and answer every beckoning call of life.”
“It’s their glands,” I suggested. “Healthy glands.”
“Glands have to be encouraged,” cried Jim. “But if you just ignore a gland, if you act as if it wasn’t there, what would you do if you were a gland? Why, you’d go to sleep too. You’d relax and pretty soon you would be dormant. Glands have to be encouraged and applauded. You have to take them for a ride every now and then. You have to go out in the cold and snow and test your glands, see how they can support you, for it isn’t your lungs and heart alone that keep you going under strain, but all the little glands strung through your system like the lights on a Christmas tree, the pituitary, the endocrines, they are the little batteries and generators distributed all through your system, and they are the power plant of all your energy.”
“I’ve tested mine,” I submitted. “They’re working. But they don’t crave to be chilled and exhausted.”
“No gland,” stated Jim, “gets any satisfaction out of lying dormant. The only thing at gland can do is work. One of these winters, my boy, you are going to hug a warm hearthstone once too often, and your glands are going to sleep and you won’t be able to wake them. up. When spring comes, they’ll be drowsy. That will be the end.”
Life Is Like Fire
“Drowsy, eh?” I muttered, remembering last summer on the cottage veranda.
“Life is like fire,” concluded Jim. “You’ve got to keep it stoked.”
“What is this excursion you were talking about?” I inquired.
“There is one every week-end,” said Jim, eagerly. “The train runs wherever the snow is. Sometimes the ski train goes up Owen Sound way or over the Caledon hills. Another time, it may go out Peterboro way. All you do is buy your ticket for the ski train, which leaves at 8 a.m. and you get aboard, and go where it goes. It has diners on it, for those who don’t carry their lunches. It waits on a siding all day, amidst the snow, and at dark. it leaves for home again, after suitable tootings of the whistle to warn all the passengers of the time.”
“My, that sounds good,” I agreed. “Have they a parlor car on too, in case a fellow gets tired of skiing and just wants to sit in a parlor car seat and read a book or look out the window?”
“I suppose that could be arranged,” said Jim.
But it was not arranged. For when, in the bitter week-end morning we arrived at the station and got aboard the ski train along with a hastening throng of other gaily clad ski-bearers, there was no parlor car, nor was there any diner. There were just half a dozen hissing and steaming day coaches of the plainest and most old-fashioned degree, best suited to carrying a crowd of noisy and joyous people, with their skis, poles, haversacks, massive boots, fogging cigarettes and an overwhelming air of hilarity.
Everybody handed up their skis and poles to the baggage car boys as they passed along the platform. Everybody swarmed into the steaming coaches, fighting past other skiers who were trying to keep places for belated friends, for whom they peered and watched. from the car doors.
There were very few young people and no elderly people. The entire passenger list seemed to consist of people at that age which is most oppressive both to the young and the elderly – 28 to 35. People of this age are curiously depressing. They have the energy of youth plus the wisdom and authority of years. They are doubly fortified. They are noisy, because they are young. But you can’t frown them down, because they are mature. Unlike 20-year-olds, they have no respect whatever for gentlemen in their middle 40’s. In fact, I think the great majority of skiers are 31 years old.
At the second to last coach in the train, Jim and I managed to slip on board past a crowd of place-guarders, by the simple pretext of joining on to the tail of a throng of five for whom the door was being held. Other place-keepers were all ready to jump into position and crowd the door, but we laughed and pretended to be part of the successful crowd and so got inside the coach and by a little finagling, got a seat together. The young fellow who had the double seat turned back, with his feet on it, succumbed to my stony stare and question. “Is this seat taken?”
He was only about 25. So very grudgingly, he gave up the spare seat, hoisted all his haversacks to another place, and Jim and I turned the back over and disposed ourselves very happily in the hot and smoke-filled coach.
It was, after all, a joyous trainload. Their colored scarves and jackets, their sturdy air, their heavy boots giving them a sort of massive and hearty quality. They made a din. In groups and couples, men and women, they shouted greetings and laughed uproariously, as 30-year-olds laugh. In belated squads, they came and pushed and shoved through the coaches, looking for seats. And by the time the train, with a reluctant grunt, got under way, I was glad I had come.
The day was gray and wintry, with promise of a blizzard, and in no time the windows we so steamed and frosted you could not see out. So we just sat and observed the motley throng catching eyes and pleasant glances every now and then, with people strange and interesting and sometimes beautiful. The ski train giddley-bumped out into the country, northerly taking the Owen Sound line for luck, because they said there were big snow hills north of the Caledon mountains.
“Normally,” I said to Jim, “people of this age do not appeal to me. I avoid them. But they seem a very hearty crowd, after all.”
“What age do you mean?” inquired Jim.
“Thirty-one,” I explained. “They’re all 31.”
“Nonsense,” said Jim, staring round at them.
And after a long time, with several wheezing stops on sidings to let freight trains crawl by, we arrived at a siding in the hills where the train stopped with several merry hoots its whistle, and everybody piled out.
The train did not wait, however, on the siding, but after discharging a great stack of skis, went on its way, the brakeman telling us that it would be back for us at 6 p.m.
In no time at all, the pile of skis was demolished and skiers with their haversacks and poles were threading away in all directions over the fields, up and down a country road that crossed near by, while others proceeded to make little bonfires to prepare tea for lunch, because it was only an hour until noon. Jim and I elected to have a fire out of deference to my devotion to the beautiful element, not to mention our mutual devotion to a pail of good boiled tea. We had cheese and onion sandwiches and leberwurst3 sandwiches, some cold fried bacon and some cakes. And under a gray and muttering sky, we lunched and chose for our direction the way that fewest people had taken. Because Jim and I are what you might call chatty skiers. We just like to slither about.
A Hard Pail of Tea
We slithered across a field to a dark wood. Around the end of the dark wood, we saw a vista of rolling fields and lonely farm houses, and all the fences drifted deep. In no time at all, we had slithered a mile or two, until the dark wood was far behind us, and other dark woods beckoned us on. We rounded a couple of them, and swung northerly to where numerous dark moving dots on the horizon proclaimed some sort of rallying point. And after another pleasant hour of slithering and stopping to observe the view until our perspiration would begin to congeal into ice, we came to the rallying point, which was a long tricky hill, with humps on it, down which 30 or 40 skiers were trying their skill sliding between ski poles set up as markers.
Women and men both were furiously toiling up this hill and abandonedly hissing down it, swerving and swooping amidst the sticks. We joined the watchers at the top, but this was an aspect of skiing neither Jimmie nor I go in for. We haven’t got much swerve in us, to be exact. Up the hill, toiling and flushed and handsome, they came, and after a quick breather, down they would go, like children. Little fires burned. Tea pails bubbled. We decided to light a little fire of our own, for warmth, because just standing watching is cold skiing.
One particularly pretty young woman whom we had observed go down the hill twice with special grace and who now arrived at the top for another go, got her eye on us. She bared lovely advertisement-style teeth at us. She even waved a mitted hand.
“Do we know her, Jim?” I inquired eagerly.
“I don’t recall her,” said Jim.
She slid over our way.
“Aren’t you slaloming?” she asked, and her voice was the husky kind.
“No,” I answered, “we’re just going to light a little fire. We’ve taken a long tour around, so we’re going to rest for a while.”
“Would you mind,” asked the beautiful young woman, she would be about 28, maybe, “putting our tea pail or your fire?”
“Not in the least,” I cried.
“Hurray,” cried the young woman, gliding smartly over to a group of men and women on the crest; “get the sack, Ted, and get our tea pail out. Grandpappy is going to boil our tea pail for us.”
So we boiled their tea pail for them, which was one of the hardest pails of tea I ever boiled in my life, and we gave it to them and they sat at another fire and then we skied back across the rolling fields to the dark wood and around it and so back to the siding where we built another and a bigger fire and sat by it, thinking, until the welcome train came in the darkness and we were two of the first aboard.
- Ski or Snow trains were common in the 1930s as a Depression era way of boosting train travel. ↩︎
- Chilblains is a condition that causes inflamed swollen patches and blistering on the hands and feet. It’s caused by exposure to damp air that’s cold but not freezing. ↩︎
- Leberwurst is another name for liverwurst. ↩︎